Hollywood is always looking for good stories—or "properties," as they are called in the trade. Like real estate, movie ideas are sold and resold, gutted and renovated. Because original scripts are risky investments, the big studios do a brisk business in sequels, remakes and adaptations of proven properties. But it seems strange that in one year Hollywood should make two major motion pictures based on the same 18th-century story of sexual intrigue. Earlier this year, British director Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons—a hit movie based on a hit stage play—reaped three Oscars. It was adapted from the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, by French military officer Choderlos de Laclos. This week marked the première of another screen version of de Laclos’s classic: American director Milos Forman’s Valmont.
The two movies, both shot on location in France in the summer of 1988, are radically different. Filming Dangerous Liaisons for the relatively modest budget of $18 million, Frears created a lean and subversive drama of crisp close-ups and theatrical dialogue. Valmont cost twice as much and took more than twice as long to make. It is a lavish epic—precisely the sort of opulent costume drama that Frears seemed determined to avoid. Forman was already developing his own adaptation when he
first heard about the rival project three years ago. Proceeding more slowly than Frears, he could not get his movie out first. But the Czechborn director of such Oscar-sweeping triumphs as Amadeus and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest forged ahead anyway. “It never bothered me,” he told Maclean’s last week. “Of course, it’s crazy to put so many millions in the same story in the same year. But craziness has always been part of Hollywood’s charisma.”
Valmont and Liaisons feature the same characters in similar predicaments. But Forman’s movie, freely adapted from the de Laclos novel, takes a different approach to the story. He has warmed its cold heart with a blush of romance. The erotic scenes are less graphic, and the film’s artists of sexual treachery are sympathetic and vulnerable. Finally, he has added an upbeat twist to the story’s dark ending.
Still, it is difficult to sit through Valmont without being haunted by Liaisons. It is like listening to a new version of a hit song—it takes some getting used to. While the Frears movie has no hero,
Forman’s film strongly identifies with Valmont, the rogue who seduces women for the sheer sport of destroying their honor. The basic intrigue remains the same. The widowed Marquise de Merteuil is upset to learn that her lover, Gercourt, is about to marry a young virgin named Cécile. Merteuil tries to persuade her former lover, Valmont, to deflower Cécile before the wedding. Then, Valmont becomes obsessed by a more daunting challenge: making a virtuous married woman, Madame de Tourvel, an adulteress.
Valmont takes some fanciful liberties with the original story. And its characters seem driven by gentler motives. Unlike the dryly vindictive character portrayed by John Malkovich in the Frears film, British actor Colin Firth plays Valmont with a bumbling innocence. He first tries to impress Tourvel by throwing himself in a river and pretending to drown. Meanwhile, American stage actress Annette Bening brings an enchanting charm to Merteuil. She acts almost every one of her scenes through a deliciously decadent smile—a stark contrast to the clenched jaw of Glenn Close in Liaisons. And in the role of Cécile, 15-year-old Vancouver actress Fairuza Balk makes a much more captivating—and credible—virgin than the nubile Uma Thurman of Liaisons (page 83). But, as Tourvel, the role so exquisitely filled by Michelle Pfeiffer in the Frears movie, Meg Tilly seems unfocused and distant.
Valmont’s script, by French screenwriter JeanClaude Carrière, offers some choice comic ironies. But
compared with British playwright Christopher Hampton’s highly literate repartee in Liaisons, the dialogue seems pedestrian. Although the characters are surrounded by the silk-brocaded luxury of the 18th-century aristocracy, at times they sound as if they are in a suburban mall. Liaisons is a hermetic drama of words, Valmont a feast of expansive images. Forman takes the camera outdoors—and beyond the confines of the nobility to show colorful glimpses of a brawling peasantry. Although the drama sometimes seems slack, Forman directs with such relish that it is never boring.
Early one morning last week, the 57-year-old director settled into a sofa in a Toronto hotel room and fired up a large Havana cigar. In lightly accented English, he talked about his fascination with Les Liaisons dangereuses. He first read the de Laclofe novel when he was a 19-year-old film student in Czechoslovakia. His teacher at the time was Milan Kundera, who went on to become a celebrated novelist, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being. “He was a great francophile and he made us read all these French novels,” Forman recalled. “Of course, whatever you read as a film student, you want to make a movie of it—even the classified ads.”
The director’s fond memories of the novel fermented for three decades. But when he saw Hampton’s London stage play in 1985, he was surprised to see how different it seemed from his recollections. Curious, he reread the novel and discovered that Hampton had, in fact, been
faithful to the story. “It was my memory that had been playing funny games with it,” he said. Preferring his own memory to the original, Forman said, “I found I violently disagreed with the idea that all these passions are the product of evil; I thought it was the other way around, that evil can be a product of passion.” Forman said that he saw the story as “a romantic clash between innocence and deca-
dence.” Without even approaching Hampton about adapting the stage play, Forman began to develop his own script with Carrière. And, at one point, he turned down an offer to direct Hampton’s adaptation. The producers of Dangerous Liaisons scoured Hollywood in search of a director willing to go head-to-head with Forman. Reluctantly, they hired Frears, who had no experience outside low-budget British films. But Forman said that he was unperturbed by the rivalry. “It didn’t affect me at all,
knowing that their film would be out before ours,” said Forman, whose shoot dragged on for six months. “My only fear was that the producers would panic. They didn’t.”
Forman still has not seen Dangerous Liaisons. But now that he has finished his own movie, he admits that he is “dying to see it— I’m sure Stephen Frears did a terrific job.” But, he said, “if I was condemned by a court to film the play, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Just the way people talk, they seem to be giving each other lectures.” The director added that he could not accept its portrayal of Merteuil as “a petty bitch,” of Tourvel as a tragic victim—or of Valmont as a fiend. “But that’s because I am Valmont,” the director laughed. “I don’t want to turn people against me.” Added Forman: “That’s the beauty of the book—you can interpret it on so many levels.”
Two centuries after it was written, the de Laclos a classic still has the power to i inflame passion and debate. “ It has endured many adaptations, from a 1935 stage play by Gaston Baty in Paris to the first screen version, by French director Roger Vadim, in 1959. Les Liaisons dangereuses was the only novel that de Laclos ever wrote. Explaining his motives to a friend, he said he wanted to create a story that was “out of the ordinary, eye-catching, something that would resound around the world even after I had left it.” He has succeeded—with a little help from Hollywood.
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